Thursday, July 11, 2024


 A  recent piece in the Washington Post has writer Jason Schwartzman puzzling out the reason why The Rolling Stones have seemingly stopped using the "Who killed the Kennedys" line from Sympathy for the Devil  in their most recent live concerts. A lifelong Stones fan, hearing a song that he's memorized each note, grunt and quasi-lurid lyric absent that reputed "payoff" line  was too much and set the author off on a mini investigation, as such , to find out the why of  the line's elimination. My guess is that the line has worn out its shock value and is, at best, not suitable in an historical moment where Americans seem poised to choose between democracy and totalitarianism in the upcoming Presidential election. Being men of wealth and taste and properly British to the DNA, it didn't seem a proper thing to announce given the current climate . 

It was heavily rumored that the Stones, stricken by unusual levels of concern and moral determination, had  dropped 'Sympathy" from their set list after the 1969 fiasco at Altamont where the Hells Angels murdered Meredith Hunter. It became part of the general mythology of the band, a musical force that wrote a song so cursed with malevolent spirit that they simply had to leave it alone. This was a wide spread belief, but it turns out after all this time to not true, an urban legend, maybe a rumor turned lose by the Stones themselves to distance themselves from the evil the song might have inspired. Mick Jagger did say, to paraphrase, that something to the effect that weird things happen when they play the song. But they never dropped the song from their live performances because, I suppose, commerce is king. After initially loving the song when it first came out, I quickly tired of it. A song created for shock value and maximum impact loses power and relevance with repeated listening. I think it's one of their weakest songs from their richest period. Even when I loved the song back when, I thought the "who killed the Kennedy's " line and the answer "After all , it was you and me" was nothing short of a cop out, another example of Jagger ducking behind theatrical ambivalence . 

Laying the blame on "you and me" for the Kennedy assassinations was a chief device . Mailer in Rolling Stone didn't buy the resolution either and called the song , essentially, a case of all build up with no pay off. Jagger evidently tried to sell the audience on the idea that he might be a Satanist but wanted some plausible deniability. On the matter of songwriters dealing with the assassinations of saints and political heroes, nothing has surpassed Phil Och's masterpiece "The Crucifixion

Friday, June 28, 2024



SLOW DAYS, FAST COMPANY:The World, The Flesh and L.A.
by Eve Babitz

Any reader who has finished the amazing set of novels, essays, and journalism left to us by the late and truly great Joan Didion who have need to read another smart woman writer blessed with quick wit, a fast and telling eye for detail, and who can use what they put across as the frailties of their personality as a brilliant means to get a handle on the cultural chaos that surrounds them in the SoCal sunlight, I would recommend...the late and truly great Eve Babitz.

Active as a writer in the 70s and 80s, Babitz was a feature writer for Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Vogue and Esquire, with a good portion of her journalism and essay writing covering Los Angeles in its most chaotic , boundary pushing years. Slow Days, Fast Company is a collection of magazine pieces, reissued a few years ago by NYRB Books , the terrain being California, the place where it seemed everyone had come from everyone else to make a last stand to be something bigger than normal before resigning themselves to their fate.

These are wonderful pieces , with Batitz maintaining a beautifully modulated tone in her first person narration of non fiction events: she is skeptical while being sympathetic, bracingly honest but hardly heartless, full of wit but seldom cruel. What comes across through the scattered subjects here is how well she presents her lack of experience or her presumptions about locations and relationships she's about to enter and credibly reveal how much she'd learn. Her piece on the city Bakersfield is a revelation of serene sympathy for a people and the community they live in, and a stand-out article is a recollection of the heroine death epidemic that seemed to be everywhere in the bad old days; Babitz recollects on her relationship with Janis Joplin , who, Babitz writes, seemed to have everything after much struggle as a woman and an artist, but resorting to heroin to fill a void her material success couldn't heal. More moving is the memory of an actress friend named Terry , a delicate creature who flitted about the edges of acting success in Hollywood, who couldn't refrain from a drug that was killing her by the noticeable inch. I recommend this to anyone who yearns for more brilliant writing about the middle part of the 20th century. With Didion, Wolf, Mailer, Babitz, I think, is essential reading for the curious.



A lucid and at times even lyric essay, poet Ben Lerner addresses the love/hate relationship everyone else besides poets themselves have with what's been gratingly called "the highest art". Taking his cue from Plato, who distrusted poetry because it presented worlds that are false and meant to seduce impressionable minds that need a hard understanding of how reality operates, Lerner quickly sketches that distrust of what poets have to say as things that are meaningless,
garbled, wishy-washy, utterly unmasculine and prone to "feminine" emotionalism and yet....he also conveys the idea that great portions of a distrustful readership cannot leave the form alone, who keep returning to it to for solace , assurance, spiritual connection of a sort that they can't achieve from the worship of money, sex, and success. Lerner doesn't have any answers I detect, and his examples are at times wholly anecdotal. This essay, in fact comes off in the end as a bit of a wallow, an attempt at ironic distance against a despairing that poets can do nothing except deem to confirm the worst sentiments of a perpetually discontented audience. But in all, an enjoyable examination of the problem , if ultimately fatalistic.

Friday, May 31, 2024



Interesting things afoot in discussions about the precious craft of writing poetry, an endeavor fraught with personal assessments of what-poetry-must-be . It’s an intense crossfire of what seems like irreconcilable views for some and suffice to say that nearly any side you might take on an issue of trying to “express the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable”, your bound to offend someone,  be called a fool, dismissed as a philistine, labeled a reactionary kook. It’s a minefield. But lately it’s been intriguing that partisans of different schools of thought about the Highest Art have agreed on one thing in particular, a general feeling of being fed up with poets drowning their poems with first person pronouns. “I, me, mine, my”, an excess of author presence, the feeling of someone talking at you , not with you. No names of offenders or the critics involved, but in a general way I’d like to offer my perhaps fence sitting take on this general complaint.  

It's a matter of "having an ear", a musical ear.
I prefer the ‘I’ of the poem to be a narrator engaged with a world fully outside their senses. It’s composing, no less than composing music. I accept the first-person pronouns as legitimate starting points or anchors, but what satisfies is if the poet concentrates on the perception of things in the world around them and does not use those perceptions for trivial finger exercises in autobiography.. The biggest sin against the art of poetry is the rise of ‘Poetry-About-Poetry’ and, worse, ‘Poems About Being a Poet.’ This is a symptom of someone who has nothing interesting to say.  

I would agree in principle that a contemporary poet is most effective when the language is pared down to the right words for the right image. Prose is the big picture and poetry x-ray, some would have it. But to have poems be hard, solid things, literally objects on par with paintings or sculpture, which was the over all mission of the Imagists movement, is at best a fool's errand. Poetry seems to me the most subjective of the writing arts, one that has inspired unlimited numbers of "schools", manifestos, rules, and regulations and demands that have tried to remake the idea of all poetic expression . Poets are individuals , though, and given a hyper awareness of themselves in the world with minds that work too hard to make connections of people, places, things, ideas, philosophies , morality that wouldn't normally be connected, the need for a writer to access their feelings, their sense of how the world appears and the qualities particular things seem to have --comparing one thing to another and the result being an unexpected third meaning, a new perception--seems to me inevitable.  

Both Steve Kowit and Paul Dresman, my two mentors in my early attempts to write honest poems, insisted that what makes for an effective and resilient poem is craft and having an ear for the right phrase and the right number of words for that phrase, an "ear" as Paul called it. And Steve in particular insisted that half the art of writing poems is in the rewriting. Even if one didn't like Steve Kowit's work, he worked on each poem relentlessly until there wasn't a false note in the piece he was about to publish and / or read.

Friday, May 10, 2024

"Younger than Yesterday" by the Byrds .


Released in 1967, the fourth Byrds album Younger than Yesterday saw the band saw the band having to commit itself to release a record after the recent loss of their principle and prolific songwriter and lead singer Gene Clark. To be sure , Clark's departure is said to have been caused by a money dispute ; he received more royalties than other band members because of his songwriting contributions. Admirably, Roger (née Jim) McGuinn. Chris Hillman and David Crosby took up the loss and contributed high caliber material to fill in the void left by Clark, the result being Younger than Yesterday, which I would argue is their best and most important record and certainly, one of the best and most important studio albums by an American rock band in the Sixties. Clark's absence forced the other members to draw on their own musical passions and, taking their cue boldly from what the Beatles were doing with their experiments, handily expanded their sound far beyond the jangling-folk rock that initially launched them . The harmonies remain without peer, and we saw the very early integration of jazz, Indian raga, country and western , psychedelia and electronics into their musical weave. Smart, disciplined production by Gary Usher keeps this record form becoming a swamp of overcooked pretensions--he was the man who had the job of saying "that's enough". "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star", "Everybody's Been Burned", “Renaissance Fair”, ""Time Between"-- the songs are first-rate and the confidence these fellows confront all the alien influence and make part of their sound and legacy is outstanding. It sounds fresh, alive, 53 years after its release. The only downside on this disc is the last track on the last side (from the original release) , "Mind Garden"", an unnavigable mind-blown miasma from David Crosby . It was the day, I suppose, when drugs were exciting, most of us working day jobs after school to have cash to buy records from major corporations believed a Revolution was pending, waiting in the winds , and that many musicians and producers, always marketers, thought they needed a song about altered consciousness to appeal to the gullible teen and the witless rock critic. I assume Crosby was sincere in his attempt to get the experience of having a blown mind in song form, but its a mess. I even thought that in 1967, when I was still in junior high.


Grande Ballroom photo by Charlie Auringer

John Sinclair, a Motor City hippie activist, founder of the awkwardly named White Panther Party and manager of Detroit band or two in the mid to late 60s, wrote in the liner notes of Kick Out the Jams, the MC5's debut album on Elektra, that the goal of the band 's high-energy rock was drive us out into the streets and drive people "out of their separate shells and into each other's arms." Summarizing his notes for the band and the disc, he ended with what should have become their ultimate slogan, "STAY ALIVE WITH THE MC5". Stay alive we Detroit teens did, infused with jazz, rhythm and blues and the rawboned wail of guitars and hard hammering drums, and here we are today, guided by politics, a memory of raging youth, an understanding that being an adult is more than getting your way when you want it, blessed or cursed with the knowledge that there are more days behind us than ahead of us. And now the last surviving member of the embattled, legendary and indispensable MC5 , drummer Dennis Thompson, has passed on. There is much I can say about the MC5 specifically and in Thompson's drum work in particular, as I was (I think) lucky, blessed , privileged to have seen the band a half dozen times in Detroit teen venues, dances and , of course, at the Grande, before I moved to California in 1969 as the part of the white flight trying to out run the smoke, broken glass and anger that lit up a previous summer's nightscape. In short order, the MC5 , the Stooges and New York's Velvet Underground invented what we understand as both punk and credibly street savvy art rock (not “progressive”, thank you). The MC5 were a “whole thing”, as Sinclair said in his notes, and the indeed they were, a loud phenomenon, a disrupting Event that made rock and roll a dangerous and challenging enterprise again after the West Coast bands and the frippery from the Brits threatened to make the music a tame and predictable tea party, a safe space of sorts. Dennis Thompson managed the impossible, it seems, pushing an ensemble where all the musicians seemed to start and stop in different places, full of feedback and guitar squalling, attacking an audience with the accelerating, weighted inevitability of an avalanche. He was a definitive if under acclaimed rock and roll drummer, a more minimalist Keith Moon if only because Thompson had the soul band emphasis on keeping the throb, the rhythm, the vibe , persistent and insistent, pushing the MC5 into deeper and further out atonal hysterics while keeping it focused on the prize at hand. Dennis Thompson was part of a whole thing. rip

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Sublime Joe Henderson Tribute from the Lori Bell Quartet

 Recorda Me: Remembering Joe Henderson -- Lori Bell Quartet

It’s more a case of slipping into a comfy, loose-fitting garment than it is studying Lori Bell’s latest release, Recorda Me: Rememb ering Joe Henderson. Kicking off with the late jazz saxophone great’s composition ‘Isotope,’” Bell nimbly states the spry signature theme, and one finds oneself unexpectedly wholly immersed in a delightful exchange between the flutist and pianist Josh Nelson. She and the keyboardist weave a delicate and swinging set of variations on it. Nelson’s touch on the keys is light, deft, and swinging, surely over the subdued but percolating tempo provided by bassist David Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle. Bell is, as she has always been in her distinguished effort, a flutist with unlimited resources who brings her nuanced lines to the fabric that the others have created for her on the opening track. Her playing soars, bringing a different assortment of tonal color to her speedy bop-informed lines and the lyrical blues coloration she often provides in her slower passages.

The album continues in this pleasurable vein, a sagacious offering of deceptively easy grooves and meters. The Lori Bell Quartet has an odd combination in that the allure in this album’s worth of interpretation of Joe Henderson’s compositions lies in the kind of classical precision, yet full of the intricate twists and shifting chord voices that elevate the improvisational acumen of all the players. It’s apparent halfway through the disc that this does not come across as a routine “tribute” to a departed jazz giant as well as projects that—in spite of good intentions—too often seem lifeless or at least absent the grace and luxuriant finesse of whomever the tribute is geared toward.

Bell avoids stifling perfectionism that mars such efforts and lets Joe Henderson’s compositions breathe in a way; the ensemble allows itself to be playful with the music in front of them, undulating with a steady yet continually evolving succession of rhythmic invention. Henderson’s saxophone playing was rich and expressive, versatile and harmonically complex. He had at his disposal an armada of voices that would be brackish and groove, smooth and lyrical, excitingly precise as his compositions required. Deeply rooted in the blues, Henderson’s songwriting used Latin and Afro references, elements creating an insistent and flexible rhythmic basis that made his inventive use of unexpected chord progressions more provocative. His music was one of dynamic but unassuming brilliance.

Recorda Me: Remembering Joe Henderson is stellar work, with the collective readings of Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” “A Shade of Jade,” and the tour de force workout on the title track, with its ascending and descending themes and shifting melody contrasts. It is a wondrous effort toward a breathtaking whole: Bell negotiates Henderson’s galloping changes with quicksilver improvisations over Nelson’s sympathetic chordings and counter melodies. His solo outing here in turn is a keen master class in uncluttered elegance. A shout out as well for the very fine work by drummer Schnelle and bassist Robaire, a rhythm section pursuing a dialogue of their own as meters swerve and sway and swing. Recorda Me does exactly what Bell and her superlative quartet intended, reintroducing listeners to a resourceful and exciting musician and composer. This music moves fast on the uptake, is light on its feet, and is memorable and compelling, rendered with a fervent wholeheartedness by a superlative ensemble.    

(originally prublished in the San Diego Troubadour).

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The failure of "Nowhere Man"

There continues to this  day, since it's release as a single in 1965, a debate, sometimes hot and other times merely a simmer, as to how successful the Beatles the "Nowhere Man" was in its day and how effectively its travelled through the decades since our first hearing. Not well say some and famously so say others. I’d agree that Nowhere Man is a failure at saying something poetic and relevant. The lyrics are banal and obvious in the straw man sort of it’s making fun of, and the moral of the story (“making all your nowhere plans for nobody…”) is insipid. This is the one time I remember that the Beatles were following a trend instead of setting one.Dylan creates an entire world of surreal and distorted characters that greet the Thin Man as he arrives , suitcase in hand, in a terrain that seems more as if he’s entering the first ring of Hell where he is confronted by every selfish choice he ever made. Dylan wanted to stop writing “finger pointing songs” (as he called his protest work) and explore the possibilities of what he could do with his word slinging. 

He accomplished much, as we all know, and it got him a Nobel Prize.I believe songs should be discussed as a whole as well, but what makes some reviewers and critics more dependable**,** intriguing and provocative is to write in earnest about what it is they regard as most germane within a particular song or larger piece of music. Criticism**,** no matter how one cares to address or define it or create proper protocols, is a subjective matter, and the reviewers who’ve I’ve kept reading over many years are the ones who can make compelling and reasoned arguments to make their case. You don’t have to be convinced, but it helps if one listens to and understands the argument being made. In this, I think the intent of Lennon writing Nowhere Man was to deliver a message ala Dylan, Phil Ochs and other folkies and folk-rockers about the superficiality of contemporary life, straw manning the squares of the Establishment with terms and phrases that we would now call “virtue signaling”. Even at age 14, when this song had come out, I thought it sounded false; I had already glommed onto Eliot’s Wasteland , Howl through my interest in Dylan at the time and pretty much had a standard set for me for lyrics that try to tell me about the sterility of Modern Life and the people who refuse to do anything to change it. 

Dylan, Ginsberg, Ochs, and others did more than describe the evils of capitalist leisure, they gave listeners vivid portraits buttressed by real, tangible anger but which was mitigated by craft. You can feel the foul wind blowing in Eliot’s wasteland, you were in the cold water flats with Ginsberg’s marginalized miscreants listening to the terror through the wall, you get a real sense of what a hell of one’s making might be like through the arrival of Mister Jones and his suitcase in a purely alienated space. Lennon is a brilliant man and there is much to discuss the abundance of his great work, but this effort, early in the days when the Beatles were showing the influences of other bands creating new and innovative work, is not one that holds up . It is perhaps the least interesting song in their catalog. But back to my point, if I had one, which is that the issue I found with this tune was Lennon’s intent to write a song that would drop knowledge , and the discussion, for me , was how well his attempt succeeded. I don’t think it did. But he did improve vastly. As did Paul Simon , who recovered from the stilted poetics of Sounds of Silence and all the unearned defeatism that particular meditation on alienation wallowed in and who became a songwriting powerhouse , perhaps the best of his generation.

Saturday, November 4, 2023


Dwight Twilley, underappreciated and (sigh) gone too soon, RIP. I reviewed his single “I’m On Fire” and his second album “Twilley Don’t Mind” in the 70s and always wondered at the time why he and his lifetime music partner Phil Seymour’s earnestly rhythmic and affectless convergence of Mersey beat melodicism and rockabilly swivel jive, replete with lapel-grabbing hooks, joyously confused vocals and sharp, popping guitar sounds never found a larger audience beyond the first hit and consistently high praise from well-placed rock critics. Office politics at the record company that released his one true hit delayed the release of their debut album, and the time lag sapped the momentum the artists had, but some of it might be that writers didn’t quite get a handle on how to categorize the Twilley Band: they were hailed, sloppily, as members of the “Tulsa Sound”, praised as creators of “power pop”, hailed as fathers of the post-punk New Wave trend, and other times, and more accurately, just called rock and roll. As the obit indicates, Twilley was annoyed at the messy attempts to place his music in a category in which it might be made commercially appealing. Just the same, the descriptions of the band’s rock and roll originals were on the money. Perhaps they needed a Jon Landau to write about them and declare that he had seen the face of rock and roll’s future to inspire a major media push for a worthy set of musicians. More likely, the Dwight Twilley Band’s moment had come and gone, with label mismanagement and shifting audience tastes at particular times being blockades. There remains some fine, eternally fresh rock and roll.”


Friday, November 3, 2023

Steely Dan


Steely Dan was called “Insufferably perfectionist” in a headline from a recent Atlantic essay discussing the renewed interest in the band's work.  It would be an apt description for the session musicians who worked for Fagin and Becker while recording the duo's fine string of studio releases. But listening to the records was anything by “insufferable” for listeners: at their best, Steely Dan's music was an elegant and generally seamless composition of beguiling hooks, mysterious melodic transitions, pitch perfect solos. Rock, jazz, funk, and even hits of 20th century classical make up their sound, dreamy and menacing. They are what others deny, an art band, a genuinely American equivalent of what British and European prog-rockers attempted, bringing together pop-music foundations with more sophisticated composition and arranging. Their models were doo-wop bands, rhythm, and blues dance jams, but also the orchestral magnificence of Ellington's notations for his band;s prime soloists. The chilly cool of Miles Davis lurks around in there as well, blended with some earnest, mellow toned soul-jazz of Oliver Lake, but where eventually where the latter artists' arrangements gave themselves over to extended improvisations from skilled ad libbers, with Steely Dan a listener to weight for the virtuosity. Fagin and Becker's recombination of their jazz influences became dense, elongated further, became more lush and impressionistic, almost tone-poem like , as the years progressed, and the solos were certainly the last thing album buyers were looking for with this pair's releases. At their best they were brilliant and enthralling, and even their lyrics-as-poetry couldn't deflate the sum of their achievement. Principal lyricist Fagin read his Eliot, his Williams, his O'Hara, his Schwartz, and his Corman , all grand modernist who didn't clog their stanzas with poetic affectation. Fagin's narratives, his evocations, are spare but mysterious, indirect but tacitly felt. Not a wasted word, which means the lyrics were odd and elegant, a sublime compliment to their music.

Discussing Little Feat, music critic Robert Christgau ventured to say that the dedicated group wasn't just another jam band from Los Angeles but were, in disguise, Euro progressive-rockers at heart. Little Feat had slide guitar, soulful vocals, and boogie well enough to satisfy anyway speedway inclination to get in the T Bird and gun your engine. Still, Bill Payne's slippery keyboard work's modernist jazzy and sly sound and the sneaky switching of time signatures amid the funk-riffing improvisation, an odd and provocative convergence of jazz, blues, rock and soul influences,  made them difficult to classify.  Christgau pegged them as a brighter version of the Continental art-rockers. Plainly, Little Feat wanted their music to be something that reflected the best use of their musicianship. Their sound was skilled, never busy, lyrically evasive, and evocative at the same time, never far the American mythos of Robert Johnson country-blues or Bukowski/Selby/Algren take on seeking transcendence as well as survival in a post-war American city. To Christgau's point, I would add Steely Dan,  perhaps the most inscrutable band to achieve a long line of radio hits, platinum albums, and sold-out tours. More so than Little Feat, Steely Dan was incredibly sharp at composing great hooks for their songs, those brief introductions at the start of tunes or coming midway during the chorus, or appearing else, unanticipated, that lures you into the story and the musical moods that underscore the emotional journey. Beyond hooks, though, Steely Dan was eclectic in the styles they drew from inputting their albums together--great bouts of guitar boogie for the stadium crowd, a mid-tempo bottom of jamming funk keeping matters on a constant low boil, Ellington like tone poems where the horn players managed brass and reed orchestrations only to give way to alone, searching cry and lilt of sax improvisation. 

All this and the hooks, and the lyrics, managed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Don Fagin, an opaquely and vaguely presented universe of people, places, things, and situations that rarely come into sharp focus; surreal, witty, allusive, cruel, and kind in different turns of mood, Fagin didn't have a large world he wrote about, or instead, wrote around. But his word craft was generally superb, like the music, artful but not crowded, bright but chatty. 
The late Walter Becker, a Steely Dan co-founder with Fagin, a writing partner in a beautifully realized team effort, made this work all the pieces. He arranged  the music, turning mere hooks and stray ideas into whole pieces.

 As often as not, centering an arrangement around Fagin's keyboard, with its affection for minor-key flirtations at the end of chord progressions that just as often seemed like an awakening and eventual arousal from the dream you wish you could return to. Becker's work on the arrangements showed that he knew how to extend and compress sections of a song under construction. His was the ability to have their best material to be immediate clarity of riff, flourish and hook. He had a discerning ear for things more diffuse, abstract, opaque informal response to emotional states under an artist's scrutiny, made Steely Dan unique even in a time when there was scarcely a shortage of quality musicians and experimenters advancing their way to their respective versions of true and only heaven. Add to this surrealistically pleasurable slurring of motifs, literary conceits, and hard-bop resolve. We have Becker's signature guitar work, stinging, serpentine solos, short fills, and spatially sublime solos with phrasing that seemed to move in a coiling, sideways motion. Becker was never rushing with his fretwork; his note choices investigated the chords and space between them, popped, stung, and soothed as motif and mood required. Becker co-created something priceless, alluring, daunting, yet readily approachable in pop music. It's a pity there is no real equivalent prize such as the Nobel for rock and roll. 

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Sunday, October 29, 2023



There are books that have nothing to do with reading but are only about other books lost in the marsh when the land fill finally sank after generations of having its soil stolen by viciously false currents generated by power boats tropical disasters crawling over the coastline like splatter expressions of tearful contempt on damp missals and newspaper throw rugs, so many books that exist only to become furniture for those years in households of college couples striving to make the past useful as furniture and  by association, anything these pages might have told in words that form poems and adages and philosophy on the fly are only reminders that all material dissolves eventually and that it is never beautiful, the horror language tried to disguise now exacting it's vulgar inevitability. And the house and the books and the scythe like limbs of many dead, leafless trees seeming to lurch for a thumbnail moon sink under the black water, into the murk, centuries of argumentative disquisitions married to the muck and mire.

Saturday, October 21, 2023



There was a time when, halfway through my teen years with two years worth of blues harmonica wood- shedding behind me, I felt inferior for reasons maybe obvious, that I didn’t feel my chosen instrument was legitimate against whole orchestras of devices that could be performed without instrumentalist shame. But I got older, and I kept playing, obsessed with learning despite my minor case of self-loathing, and find myself in a position of being too old and actually too good a harmonica player to care what the rest of the universe thinks of the sounds I make. Worrying about the “relevance” of the harmonica in today's world is to miss the point entirely. The assumption behind the question--is it still relevant--implies that playing the harmonica is regarded more as a status symbol than as a tool for the legitimate and humanly necessary pursuit of making music that expresses, in music, the emotional life of the musicians playing. The question degrades the state of the instrument from being a tool to create some space for joy and wonder in the world, a thing that should be incorruptible, to that foul thing that only furthers neurotic obsessions with social standing. If one has survived the fads, concerns and the warring of stale ideologies over a long period of time, decades, say, if you've come to the point where what people think of your harmonica playing is meaningless and merely a reflection of their sense of irrelevance, then yes, harmonicas are relevant in today's world, your world, the only world that matters, finally, when you put the harmonica on the microphone and let loose with a timeless 1 1V V. Beyond that, worries about whether the instrument still matters seem a species of introspect that arises when there is nothing good on cable TV.

Some time ago, in the early internet days, I remarked on a music forum over in Salon’s old Table Talk readers comment section that I thought Mick Jagger was a horrible singer, but he was a vocalist of great genius. Stalwart Jaggernauts attacked me outright while I tried to make myself understood, but this was no use and really an event I should have seen coming. In fact, I wanted to stir up the conversation that was underway, which was a droning exchange of the usual accolades heaped on the Rolling Stones. The topic was sealed finally by forum moderators who tired of trying to control an angry mob of netizen Jagger fans poised to supply more poison posts. I should have clarified because my point is that there are white singers who have technically awful voices who brandish blues influences all the same and who have managed to fashion vocal styles that are instantly distinct, unique, recognizable. Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead in trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises, all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing and finally recording the song of the title, is especially good because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocals, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and for all time with the marginal instrument he was born with, and is part of what, I think, is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who nonetheless molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the under appreciated J.Geils Band.We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always.


 It's an inescapable fact that blues is an African American art form , as is jazz and, for that matter, rock and roll at its most vital, and that there are talented, brilliant and exciting black musicians who continue to play the music, innovate within its historical definitions and extend those definitions to keep the music contemporary, alive, and most important, relevant to the way people, players and listeners, live today. It's my belief, inscribed deeply in the most fundamental set of moral convictions I have, that to ignore the plenitude of black talent, whether they are young, middle-aged, or elderly, if you're a music editor, a record company executive, a promoter specializing in blues festivals, a club owner highlight blues and roots acts, is racism, clear and simple. Likewise, it's racism on a subtle level, but damaging all the same; a decision was made to exclude black musicians from this list. Compiling a list of the worthy is always problematic,fraught with all sorts of dangers because any number of readers can be offended for insular reasons no writer can predict. But what's offensive about this list is the laziness of the selection. I happen to like a number of the artists here and believe musicians like Black Keys, Joe Bonamassa, Susan Tedeschi and others are legitimate blues musicians.Skin color isn't their fault, and , to me,the quality of their chops and the authenticity of their feeling are "real". I will also give the writers credit for including a good number of women on the list.

Still, the lack of black musicians is inexcusable and reveals a conspicuous , egregious choice by the editors to remain loyal to their skin hue. Where was Sugar Blue? Lucky Peterson? The Eric Gale Band?Shemekia Copeland? Alvin Hart? Sapphire?Gary Clark Jr? Keb Mo? These players deserve wider recognition no less than the ones who made the list; I have a strong, strong suspicions that an inexcusable laziness directed the selection process, formed, no doubt, by a profound lack of curiosity for the "critics" who, by the definition of their job, are supposed to knowledgeable and curious about things that fall outside their comfort zone. I also suspect that those making the selection were entirely white; as such,they stuck with the skin color they are most comfortable with.

 Jefferson Airplane was a side of psychedelic rock I found most appealing, being in their short-lived prime a volatile and imaginative forced marriage of folk tradition, jazzy "mystery chords", Joyce/Eliot/Wallace Stevens influenced versifying, and piercing harmonies provided by the bulldozing Grace Slick and Balin's soaring, bittersweet tenor. Their albums were a fascinating, eclectic mess, indulgent and snotty and harsh; I would put them, along with the Stooges, MC5 and the Velvets, as stylistic forerunners of the punk rock anti-aesthetic. Balin was the ballast for the band, a balladeer, a genuine folk singer, a romantic who never abandoned his tendency for the oddly effective lyric that emphasized an actual relationship rather than a worldview. I liked this band up to Volunteers album.Afterward, the devolution set in, when Paul Kanter's sci-fi libertarian fantasizes turned JA into a plodding monstrosity of ego and half-measured music.

Those among the readership who followed the career arc of this band through the 60s and the 70s will recall, perhaps stifling a gag reflex, the slew of Jefferson Starship albums that evolved from the original band. It will suffice to say for this short note that the best thing the Starship ever did was recording and releasing Marty Balin's fabulous song "Miracles", a sensuous, radiant paen to making love with a partner. Alluring melody, a vocal aching with a combination of passion and a more primal lust, all of it buffeted by swirling guitar lyricism from the able-fingered Craig Chaquico. It was the best thing Jefferson Starship ever did, a masterpiece of pop-rock sexuality that rose to canonical heights over the increasing vapidity and knuckleheaded irrelevance. The band, or at least the management and record company, hung their heads in shame all the way to the bank, and it remains, I suppose, the supreme irony of things that a band beginning as Jefferson Airplane, counterculture revolutionaries singing of a society without pretense, class structure, false morality and , by implication, cash, evolved into the Jefferson Starship, a cash cow for corporate interests. So yes, money changes everything. That said, it should be mentioned that the guitar work of Jorma and Jack Cassidy's bass lines were among the best teams of the era. And Balin was a fine musician, singer, and songwriter who might have done better if he had a less dicey means to bring his music to the public.